After more than a century away from the islands, human remains stolen from burial caves in Hawaii and sold to a museum in Germany have finally returned home.
Two skulls from Oahu and one skull and a jawbone from Hawaii island arrived in Honolulu late Thursday with Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, including Kamanaʻopono Crabbe,
CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
The remains apparently were stolen by German ship captains between 1896 and 1902 and sold directly to
the Museum of Ethnology in Dresden, where they have been held since.
The iwi kupuna, or skeletal remains, were formally transferred to the Hawaii group in an emotional ceremony Monday, concluding a 26-year campaign to bring them home by the former Big Island cultural group
Hui Malama i na kupuna o Hawaiʻi nei.
“I feel relieved,” said Edward Halealoha Ayau, the former Hui Malama executive director who led the effort. “I’m really ecstatic. We called the Germans out on their sense of humanity. We appealed to their nature and they responded in kind.”
The event, he said, was especially significant because it marked the first time the east German state of Saxony, which owns the museum, repatriated human remains to representatives of the country where the remains originated.
What’s more, the museum announced that it would launch repatriation talks with delegations from New Zealand, Easter Island and Namibia, and would be open to additional claims.
The museum also said it would work with Native
Hawaiians to put together a collection of photographs featuring Hawaiian royalty during their visits to
During the ceremony, Crabbe acknowledged
Saxony government and
museum officials for making the repatriation happen.
“Their leadership is progressive and will reverberate throughout Germany and across Europe,” he said, “and will hopefully usher in a new era of reconciliation and spiritual healing with native and indigenous peoples throughout the world.”
Museum Director Nanette Snoep acknowledged the generations who were wronged and hoped the action would lead to healing.
“Today we have returned the bones of ancestors to Hawaii,” Snoep said. “They had a family, and their life story made them victims in the name of scientific research, colonialism and an unequal balance of power.”
Native Hawaiians traditionally believe that the mana, or the spiritual essence and power, of a person resides in the bones, or iwi. For many Native Hawaiians it is important for the bones of a deceased person to complete their journey and return to the ground to impart their mana.
The campaign to retrieve the bones began in 1991 after Hui Malama sent letters to 200 museums asking for the return of any human remains from Hawaii that might be in their collections. The museums were all in countries that sent ships
The Dresden museum was one of the few institutions that acknowledged having remains from Hawaii, but officials refused to talk about giving them up, saying the remains were the property of the state of Saxony.
Ayau said Hui Malama continued to press its case over the years. The group sent numerous letters, researched German law, asked for help from the United
Nations, approached the German Embassy and urged other sympathetic museum directors to send letters of support.
“We tried everything you could think of,” he said.
In 2000, a delegation from Hawaii visited Dresden. The remains were not on display, and the museum refused to show them to the visitors.
“We had a horrible meeting with the director, who scolded us and told us it was a waste of time for us to be there,” Ayau said.
What finally got their attention was an article Ayau co-authored in a German magazine in April, a critique of newly proposed German repatriation guidelines. After Ayau accused the Dresden museum of “intellectual savagery” in its repatriation dealings, the article’s editor, from the University of Berlin, called the Saxony curator and asked why claims were being ignored.
It wasn’t long, with
permission, before the
Hawaiians were asked to
enter into discussions about taking the remains home.
In total, Hui Malama has helped engineer 13 international repatriations since 1991 and 117 overall.
The group was dissolved in 2015 after concluding that it had fulfilled its original purpose of getting Hawaiian families involved in the effort. That left OHA as the Dresden claimant, with Ayau serving as a volunteer OHA liaison.
Ayau said he’s now talking to a Berlin museum after learning in September about a collection of human remains and funerary objects there. Additionally, he said, he has a tip about remains in a Paris museum that he’s going to investigate.